Boyle, T C and Pitlor, Heidi eds. The Best American Short Stories 2015. Houghton Mifflin New York, 2015. F;8/16.
Lots of fun, in the mood as I was after reading one of Wallace’s short fiction collections. These are taken from American and Canadian magazines, and were mostly examples of what I take to be post-postmodernism, not to get lost in the almost silly terminology of recent criticism. I’m impressed with the influence of Wallace’s strategy of just being so good that postmodern irony, in the best of these, is supercharged with something that doesn’t give us a chance to escape from taking what we read, and its effect on us, seriously.
Julia Elliott’s Bride is jampacked with ironically archaic atmosphere. It reminded me of some things I’ve read by Angela Carter: sensuousness fully in the face. For some reason it felt to me like a childhood Christmas: rich, but gone a bit crazy. A decadent ecclesiastic setting for an enormous feast of the imagination. I would read something else by her.
The Fugue by Arna Bontemps Hemenway is another blockbuster. Reality, perception, and illusion (favourite themes in my 1960s English lit courses) are obviously and maybe a bit ironically what the story is about, but there’s a sinister pounding of repetitiveness that reminded me of the alarm clock in the movie Groundhog Day, but this story is no comedy. What really happened, and is really happening? Or more like which of the rehearsal, the event, or its recollection is most real? The soldier Wild Turkey can’t stop reliving an awful but horribly banal military error and its harm to an innocent little family in Iran.
I surprised myself by not experiencing my Million Dollar Baby (oh shit, this is about sickness!) disappointment in Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I just wanted to know what was going to happen. And like nearly every one of these stories it pointedly ended without my finding out. Which, somehow, was also okay.
Finally, among my favourites, is Mr. Voice by Jess Walter. I was impressed enough that I downloaded his novel Beautiful Ruins. It’s also good, but the story punches way above its weight, and looks to be the refinement of some of the themes in the novel.
Considering the best of these stories, let me call postmodernism kind of synonymous with irony – a sort of sneer. Literature academic Lewis Hyde was quoted as saying: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage… (it) is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Stories that do something more would be called, I guess, post-postmodern. Not sure what we will call the next step…
No score here for a jungle of varied exotic beasts, but at least a third of them are sweet or scary enough, or both, to be well worth the virtual safari.